Are doctor's notes enough to render employees 'fit to work'?

What's HR's role in greenlighting a sick or injured worker's return

Are doctor's notes enough to render employees 'fit to work'?

Over the years Singapore has seen several cases of employees not being given adequate sick leave and given the ‘OK’ by doctors to return to work.

What should employers take of ‘fit to work’ medical clearances? Should employers have other considerations when workers inform of their plan to return?

HRD finds out the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) view on the topic.

MOM states that if a medical examination shows that an employee who was previously on leave is fit enough for hazardous work, a designated workplace doctor needs to submit a certificate of fitness before the employee can return to work.

Submissions can be made online and MOM requires complete medical reports to be filed right after the doctor’s assessment.

Following the employee’s return, they can also claim ‘Return to Work’ treatments, which include rehabilitation treatment expenses referred by the treating doctor.

Employees also have a right to visit the same doctor and inform them that they require more sick leave to recover, stated MOM.

But if the doctor finds the employee fit enough for 'light duties', the clearance means that the worker is ‘fit to work’ and no longer eligible for medical leave.

MOM leaves it up to the employer to handle the situation accordingly. However, this legality should not be abused.

“As an employer, you should clarify with the doctor on the scope of work your employee can perform under light duties,” MOM said.

“If there is no light duty available, you could consider being more generous to treat the light duty as medical leave for your employee to rest at home.”

Cases of abuse are small here according to reports. Although, in a circular last year, MOM stated it had received feedback on errant employers influencing medical practitioners to “downplay the severity of the injuries”.

In this case, doctors are coerced to issue lesser number of days of medical certification (MC) or issue light duties in lieu of MC against the interest of the injured worker.

MOM is aware that employers do so to avoid reporting the accident to the authorities or for the purpose of reducing compensation to the injured.

READ MORE: Injury case puts doctor-employer relationship in the spotlight

In the jointly issued circular with the Ministry of Health, they reminded doctors to abide by guidelines around medical leave laid out by the Singapore Medical Council.

It emphasised that “the key concern when an injured worker is made to return to work is the risk of aggravating the injuries and reducing his chance of full recovery”.

Therefore, “the number of days of MC should commensurate with the severity of the injury sustained by the workers”.

Although directed at doctors, employers should also be aware of guidelines around light duties.

The authorities stated that light duties should be issued in the best interest of the worker and only after taking into consideration:

a. The appropriate duties are indeed available at the injured staffer’s workplace. This entails an understanding of the employee’s work environment, job duties and demands.
b. Whether the employee’s incapacitated condition allows him/her to perform those duties without aggravating his/her injuries.

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